FORT WORTH -- Like the pilots who flew it, the P-38 Lightning fighter plane could be counted on to do whatever needed to be done during World War II.
The famed aircraft with the twin booms -- known by the Nazis as a "fork-tailed devil" -- could be a dive bomber, a ground attacker or a long-range escort.
"You could walk through a building like a hot knife through cold butter," said B.W. Curry Jr., 91, of Hattiesburg, Miss., who flew P-38s on 50 missions while based in southern Italy during World War II. "You could fly over water, 500 miles, then go over the mountains, then take out some railroad lines and bridges."
Curry was among 21 veterans from the 49th Fighter Squadron Association -- including six men who fought in World War II -- who were in Fort Worth on Friday for a special ceremony.
Officials from Lockheed Martin dedicated a hangar to the people who built, flew and maintained the aircraft. The hangar is now home to the F-35 Lightning II, which is nicknamed after the P-38 and is assembled at the Fort Worth plant.
With a shiny new F-35 as a backdrop for the ceremony, officials unveiled an artist's rendering of the mural they plan to paint on the building's exterior. It will feature the motto "P-38 Lightning Hangar: The Legacy Continues."
The World War II veterans, who sat side by side in the front row during the ceremony, inspire those who build and fly the F-35, said Air Force Col. Alex Stathopoulos, who administers F-35 contracts.
As for the P-38 itself, Joe LaMarca, Lockheed Martin's vice president for communications, summed it up during the one-hour ceremony by invoking the words of the late test pilot Col. Ben Kelsey, who remarked years ago that the P-38 would "... fight like a wasp upstairs, and land like a butterfly."
James Cooke, 88, of Arlington was stationed at Foggia, Italy, during World War II. He worked on a P-38 ground crew.
"In the morning, we would reload the machine guns, reload the cannon and get it clean," said Cooke, who got an engineering degree at the University of Oklahoma after the war and worked on aircraft as a civilian at General Dynamics, which became Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth. "Then we would get up at 11 o'clock at night and load bombs on the P-38."
Don Luttrell, 90, of Dallas flew 55 combat missions in support of the invasion of southern France. He said he brought down five enemy aircraft, although he was only credited with two. He received the Distinguised Flying Cross, an Air Medal with seven Oak Leaf Clusters and the European Service Medal with five stars for his service with the 49th Fighter Squadron.
The P-38 was versatile and reliable, he said.
"It worked very well," he said. "You could put the guns out of the nose, put glass in it and put a bombsight in it."
Today, the F-35 is a modern marvel of a machine, with immense technology and stealth capability, Lockheed Martin test pilot Bill Gigliotti said.
"You show up to the fight with all the information," he said, "and the enemy never sees you."